Washington, DC — A massive land-for-oil swap in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge aims to open much of eastern Alaska up to petroleum development, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The land exchange is moving quickly despite the absence of any land appraisals for the more than half-million acres involved. One preliminary estimate puts potential undiscovered Yukon oil resources at one-third the size of Alaska’s largest North Slope field.
Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is considered one of the greatest waterfowl breeding grounds in North America. The 11 million acre refuge (more than twice the size of Massachusetts) is located on the eastern side of the state along the Canadian border and is bisected by the Yukon River.
Under the agreement, the Interior Department would give up 110,000 acres of land and subsurface rights and subsurface rights for another 100,000 acres of the Yukon Flats NWR to a Native Corporation called Doyon, Ltd. In return, Interior would receive 150,000 acres of Doyon refuge in-holdings and the Doyon would waive rights to 53,000 more acres. Then, depending upon the oil and gas developed by Doyon and its value, Interior could get additional lands and a small royalty.
Currently, there is no oil development in the region. The trade would put the refuge’s most commercially promising areas under corporate control and facilitate pipelines to carry oil and gas to market.
“Interior is trying to accomplish on the Yukon what Congress denied them on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program. “The net result will sweep a vital wildlife refuge into an oil rush, crisscrossed with pipelines and roads.”
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the exchange outlines a panoply of potential detrimental impacts, including higher air pollution, discharge of greenhouse gases, “excessive draw down of surface waters,” loss of wetlands from drainage to build oil platforms, as well as threats to water quality and the risk of oil spills. The deadline for public comments on the land exchange is March 25th.
The transaction is classified as “an equal value exchange” even though no appraisals have been conducted. Waiting for appraisals, however, would delay the deal until the next administration. In addition to not knowing the relative land values, Interior would earn only miniscule royalties on recovered oil and gas from land that the federal government now owns.
“This deal is a pig in a poke and it is one darned big pig,” Hocutt added, noting that Interior is refusing numerous requests to extend the comment period on the exchange. “There is a rush to complete this exchange before anyone realizes what has been given away.”